Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Vintage. 311pp. $13.95
I’m asking myself the question critics always ask when a mainstream writer publishes a thriller: does Motherless Brooklyn succeed as a mystery? It has one of the mystery features that I think of as amateurish, a substantial chapter at the end to tie up all the loose ends, though in this case that chapter includes a conversation between our narrator and one of the principles, and ends with some action. The narrator in question, Lionel Essrog, is only nominally a detective, though he has acted as one throughout the book. At least one of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries includes a long explanatory chapter at the end, and I regard her as the Queen of mystery writers. I’ll give Jonathan Lethem a pass.
The question is academic anyway, because of the three Lethem novels I’ve just finished, this was the one I couldn’t wait to read every evening. Part of that is that it’s set in the neighborhood I’m most familiar with in Brooklyn, Boerhem Hill, and includes some actual locations I’ve visited. But mostly it’s that the writing is excellent, and keeps the story moving. This is the shortest and in some ways the least complicated of Lethem’s famous novels. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999.
Lionel famously has Tourette’s, one more in Lethem’s pantheon of oddball characters. He explains it as a compulsion; energy builds in Lionel in certain anxious situations, and he has an overwhelming need to shout weird words, tap people on the shoulder, smooth their collars. His friends call him the Human Freakshow. The narrative takes Lionel to—among other places—a Zen Center, where anxiety naturally arises and people are under orders to be quiet and still. It is a comic scene that was begging to be written, though it’s nerve-wracking in context.
Lionel is also an orphan. He and three of his friends were rescued from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys by a local thug named Frank Minna, who got the young men to do various odd jobs and paid them with twenty dollar bills and cans of beer (even when they were fourteen). They never knew when Frank might show up at the orphanage and want their help. By the time they left, he was ready to employ them full time, in a small business that was ostensibly a car service but was actually a detective agency. We don’t see them do much detecting—except in the case at the novel’s center—and don’t discover their qualifications. Frank wants them to do it, so that’s what they do.
But the novel opens with Frank’s murder. He has asked his “men” to do a stakeout at a building in Manhattan, which turns out to be the aforementioned Zen Center. They don’t know what they’re looking for, or why they’re there. Frank shows up wearing a wire, and asks one of his guys to come with him, asks Lionel to listen to the ensuing conversation and follow him if he says certain things. The men see Frank come out of the building with a huge guy, and try to follow their car, but it is rush hour in New York, and they can only do so well. Eventually they find their mentor in a dumpster, bleeding to death. Lionel spends the whole novel trying to find out what happened, and what part was played by various people who surround him.
For most of the novel we don’t especially know what Frank did for a living, though we suspect it wasn’t too savory. He belonged to the world of the Carroll Gardens thugs, though he definitely seems small time. But the atmosphere of the whole book, the camaraderie of the men—much of the story is told in flashback, as we hear how these guys got to where they are in the first chapter—is endlessly interesting and charming. It’s as much a story of the place as the people.
Frank’s mother, for instance, is what’s known as “a stove,” an Italian woman who cooks food all day and sells it to guys in the neighborhood. It’s hardly an official business; guys just know how good her food is and where to get it; they take it out and eat it on a park bench or leaning against a wall. Frank sometimes takes the boys to eat at her place, and it was while they were there one day that his older brother came in and said, “You’ve got all of motherless Brooklyn here.” Frank had become a surrogate father.
Lethem has spoken freely about the fact that he was motherless; that is the central trauma of his life. We don’t know what relationship he has with people who have Tourette’s, or Asberger’s, who are “on the spectrum,” as he says in Chronic City, but this is a person who read every novel by Philip K. Dick when he was a teenager, who saw Star Wars in its first theatrical release 21 times. He has more than a passing interest in obsession and compulsion, in plain weirdness. I do too.
I mention all this because at the heart of this novel, narrating it, is the weirdly named Lionel Essrog, motherless, possessed of an extreme disability that gets him in trouble time and again. What a guy to be a detective, we can’t help thinking. He has fortunately grown into a physically imposing manhood, and handles himself well, though he’d rather back down from a fight than jump into it. Lionel makes this novel, and he makes it because, despite his problems, he’s wonderfully sweet. You might have thought he’d be bitter and violent, but not at all. He searches for Frank’s killer because he loved Frank, and in the middle of the book has a romance with a Zen Center girl who is, in her own way, as weird and vulnerable as he. I’m not suggesting Lionel is an autobiographical character, but I do think Lethem identifies with him. It’s because he takes him seriously as a human being, and loves him, that this becomes a great novel.
That might be what keeps it from being a genre novel, though it tips its hat at that direction. The thing we like about Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade, even Archie Goodwin, is that they’re types, never change as human beings. Lionel isn’t a gumshoe; he’s our protagonist, and a fully realized character. The novel is about him, not the mystery. Though he’s about as much of a mystery as there is.
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